Rathfinny Wine Estate

Another planting

This years planting was quite unlike any other, and for more than one reason.

Once again we had the team from Vinplant over from Germany to get our vines in the ground at the beginning of last week.

Unlike previous years we planted quite late (for us) the last week of April rather than the first. Luckily this meant we planted into moist soils from the previous weekends rain and have since had a few good downpours of rain to help bed in the vines. If we had planted early the vines would have gone into parched, dry soils, with no rain for weeks. So much for April showers!

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Soil – not dirt

It is often said that we know less about our oceans than we do our solar system, what is more amazing is that we know less about our soil under our feet than we do the surface of the moon.

In order to broaden my knowledge last week I attended a field lab on Soil analysis, which looked at different approaches to soil analysis and comparing them. As growers we are faced today with various methods and approaches to assess the fertility and health of our soils, and new methods are being continuously developed.

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Pruning 101

We’re still Pruning and it was suggested that we try and explain why we prune and how we prune the vines so what better way to do this than with a short video…

So we have produced a short video on pruning, with Rick Burrows from the vineyard explaining how, and why we prune:

http://youtu.be/jZ8leB52c7M

While all the tasks in the vineyard are important nothing is more critical than pruning. There are a four main reasons we prune:

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It’s Pruning Time!

While we haven’t started pruning for real yet, we have done a little bit to get our eye in before we really get started after the holidays.

This is the first year we can truly feel like we are pruning for a real purpose. The vines are now getting bigger; they have grown more this past season than any other, and we are starting to refine our techniques and systems of pruning.

We ‘cane prune’ all the vines, because in our cooler climate the lower buds of the vine are less fruitful and will generally have less vigour than a lot of vineyard sites, partly due to our shallow soils.

When you prune, you have to keep in mind not just the season just gone, but what we want to see the coming season and following season after that.

Pruning is both complex and a simple process at the same time.

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End of Season

Another season draws to a close for the vineyard.

The vineyard is winding down, we had our first frost this morning, giving everyone a bit of a shock considering what a warm autumn we’ve had.

The fruit has been harvested, and its juice is now slowly bubbling away in the winery, and I’ve never seen Jonathan happier. Finally he has a chance to be in his element doing what he’s here to do.

All the development blocks are now finished with posts and wire, the guys in the vineyard can finally do something else!

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It’s a quite time of year for the vineyard, doing all those jobs that we’ve been too busy to do through out the year, catching up on much needed maintenance, cleaning the barns out, and generally getting things in order before winter sets in proper.

Given the temperature’s we’ve been having we’re madly trying to get as much grass seed in before we loose the opportunity. Its always a battle in Autumn to get as much of the vineyard grassed down as possible before A) it gets too cold, and/or B) it gets too wet. We’re right at the end of the weather window at the moment, we just need a few more dry days…

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Almost there……

As we near our final weeks of the growing season, we begin to feel the cautious excitement of the approaching harvest.

Word is that some other producers have already started, a sure sign that we are headed for an early harvest. Many producers are said to be up to 3 weeks earlier than normal. With such a great growing season it’s little wonder; the brilliant summer has continued to extend into the autumn bringing with it warmer than average days and great ripening conditions.

Picking crates and bins are prepared and one eye is kept on the weather forecast, quietly hoping that the warmer weather conditions continue, although the bite of autumn is starting to be felt.

We have the luxury of a few quite different varieties, which will all ripen at slightly different times to each other thereby extending the harvest. We don’t mind being a bit later than most as this extra “hang time,” allows the grapes to reach their full potential and develop more intense flavours without losing their structure and balance.

You can really see the differences in characteristics of the different varieties, from the delicate little bunches of the Pinot Gris slowly attaining their pinkish hue,
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the robust bunches of the ever reliable Meunier,
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the golden yellow of the Chardonnay,

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the tight small bunches of the Pinot Noir,

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and the ever hopeful Riesling still looking crisp and clean.

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Here’s hoping for a couple more weeks of good weather.

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Veraison- nearly

For once I’m not going to talk about the weather.

After a fantastic summer we are about to reach the onset of Veraison.

IMG_7721Often we find ourselves saying this is an exciting time in the vineyard. Veraison is one of the true highlights of the year however. Veraison is a French word which has come to mean the onsite of grape ripening, but in all reality is the change of colour of the berries. It represents the transition from berry growth to berry ripening: up until now the grapes have been going through cell division and expansion,the initial phase of berry growth. As berry growth slows the lag phase takes over. The lag phase is not a physiological stage, but a designation between the two periods of berry development. This is when veraision occurs.

Up until this point the vineyard is a sea of green, with the grapes camoufluaged against a backdrop of leaves and shoots. From here on in it all changes, in the red varieties (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) anthocyanin’s start to develop in the fruit which cause the fruit to change colour to blue/red/black, while in the whites they start to get a yellowish hue.

After we see the colour change it’s all about the sugar and acid. The sugar in the berries accumulate and the acidity levels drop. The tannins become less bitter-tasting and softer, the grapes become more palatable and finally we have something to show for the season.IMG_4031

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Harvest Labour

Labour will always be an issue in vineyards, it’s not limited to the UK but a worldwide problem.

By their inherent nature, vineyards are labour intensive. Sure there are ways to mechanise certain aspects of the vineyard year, however a lot of the work still needs to be done by hand.  Remember, for sparkling wine, all our grapes will be hand picked!

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It is a worldwide phenomenon that the manual vineyard work is done by a migrant workforce. Mexican’s cross the border to work in the US and Canada, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Indians in Australia and New Zealand, and Southern Europe’s vineyards are full of people from the North African nations.

The UK has traditionally been similar to other Northern European wine producing nations in using predominantly Eastern European migrants. While not all vineyards have a migrant workforce, many and in particular the larger scale operations have relied heavily on the available labour pool from Romania, Poland, Lithuania, etc.

There is a reason for this ……..

An example from a labour provider in the horticultural sector is a perfect way of explaining the phenomenon:

In 2013 they (Horticulture staff agency) advertised 43 roles on the Job Centre Plus website between March and June

  • 1000 click throughs and 90 expressions of interest
  • 11 applications and 11 interviews
  • 4 no shows, 6 jobs offered and appointed, 1 not prepared to ‘commute’
  • Of the 6 appointed: 1 dismissed, 2 left the job, 3 still in posts

That’s a total of 3 people in work out of 1,000 that looked at the job, for 43 roles!

People often wonder why there are immigrants coming into the country “taking” all the jobs.  It’s because the local population of unemployed are generally unwilling to do this work, as it’s very seasonal manual work.

This is not the only issue; high areas of agricultural/horticultural/and viticultural work correspond with low Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimant counts. For us, the number of people on JSA in both Eastbourne and Brighton are dropping, and are both well below the national average, which means there just aren’t the number of people out there that will do this work.

So we need to search further afield for our seasonal labour force.

Harvest for vineyards is late September/early October, dependent on the season and lasts for four to six weeks.

So what we are looking for is good people willing to put in some graft over the harvest, in all weather conditions. Yes it will be hard, yes it will be long days, but it is rewarding, both financially and morally. We even have accommodation for 46 people and can pick you up from the local station!

Please get in touch with us if you are interested.  We really do want to try and employ a UK workforce if we can.

If you’re interested, send your details to – info@rathfinnyestate.com

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Not your usual day

I often say how varied the work in a vineyard can be, however this week I had a day that was quite unlike any other.

The day started like an ordinary day, heading down to the barn, to make sure the guys knew what they are doing for the day. Most of the team were off at a Biodiversity class learning about how we can benefit the vineyard through the use of host plants. So the remaining crew were left to do a bit of trellis repair work, as it was quite a pleasant morning not too cold with a bit of sun breaking through the clouds.

I left them to it as Jamie, Jonathan and I were representing Rathfinny at the opening of the UK Wine Research Centre at Plumpton College, and in particular the Rathfinny Research Winery. Not exactly my usual attire but I needed to get into my suit. Just as I was about to change I get a phone call….um the tractor’s PTO (power take off unit) won’t engage. A quick dash back to the barns to see what the problem was, pull half the dash off the tractor and after a lot of cursing the Italians that made the tractor, eventually the PTO was back up and running. It’s amazing that such a crucial piece of a tractor is held together with the tiniest split pin, smaller and less robust than my daughter’s hairpins! So crisis averted.

This time I got my suit on without interruptions.

The Plumpton Wine Research facility was opened by the Duchess Of Cornwall, quite fitting really as she grew up in the area and is the Patron of both Plumpton College and The UK Vineyards Association. We all were introduced to her, which was a bit nerve racking as there is a host of things to remember; what you should and shouldn’t say, and should and shouldn’t do. Luckily Jonathan and I weren’t deported for breaching Royal protocol, and I think Jamie still hasn’t washed his hand yet!

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So thanks to donors such as Mark and Sarah, the UK now has a top research facility, which the UK wine industry needs. This will help the industry grow as every new and exciting industry needs a strong research institution behind it. Plumpton College is that centre of excellence in the cool climate wine region of England.

So after spending the best part of a day with the high flyers of the English Wine industry and HRH, the tail end of the day was spent trying to communicate to a Romanian truck driver who had no, and I mean no English whatsoever. He had to do a half hour detour (to avoid going through Alfriston) to get to where he needed to be, to unload our vines for this years planting. So I led him on the detour, then I was unloading vines on the forklift – in the snow/sleet and hail.

Yes, that’s right, it seems that every time we decide to plant vines the weather turns. We are planting another 20 ha of vines in a couple of weeks time. Everything is prepared and ready to go. Vines are now on site, posts, wire, and everything else we need for the next stage of the vineyard is here.

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The existing vineyard has just started to show signs of life with the first buds starting to move, we should have budburst properly in a couple of weeks time, so here’s hoping for some nice weather.

So that sums up a not so typical day in the vineyard.

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Pruning expectations

Managing a vineyard is as much about managing expectations as it is managing vines.

Pruning is a typical case, what can sometimes look like a harsh haircut is in fact the best thing for the vine. On the other hand a poorly pruned vine may take some years to recover, which is why it is so important to get right.

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Pruning is single-handedly the most expensive operation in a vineyard and the most important part of the growing season. It determines how much fruit the vine will try to crop, and how many shoots it will grow. This is the key factor in managing the growth and potential fruit for the coming season, as vines will only produce fruit from one-year-old wood.

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While there is often expectation to see a crop early from the vines this is often not a good idea, the vines have to be able to carry the fruit without putting stress on their system- its all about balance, and while the vines are young it is often difficult to predict the correct crop load.

In our case we are erring on the side of caution – we’ve had 2 unusual seasons (in the case of our older vines). The first year it was very wet during the growing season, which meant the root growth was minimal- which in turn means the shoot growth is minimal. The second season it was very dry during the growing season, which also means minimal root and shoot growth. This is why we are not pushing the vines to get too much fruit this year. We will have some, and while the quality will be there we won’t have huge tonnages.

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

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Windbreaks

As most of our avid readers will now know, we have come to the realisation that we do indeed have a windy site. The trees that we planted, some of them over 2 years ago are slowly growing up to provide shelter for the vines, but the problem being the operative word is slowly.

So we’re now installing windbreaks for our windbreaks.

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With a start made toward the end of November, the guys from Negus Glass have been first setting out the lines and then drilling holes ready for the upright supports of the windbreaks- they even managed to find where our water main went, which has always been a bit of a mystery to its exact location.

Over the last couple of weeks they’ve been setting in the base steel, before the uprights go in. As we do get such strong winds these windbreaks have to be of a top standard and as a result are incredibly sturdy.

This is not a 5 minute job, these guys will be on site for the next 3 months.

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Once finished we’ll have 4m high windbreaks, which should provide shelter for most of the vineyard, meaning we can finally get the growth that we’ve been waiting for on the vines. The other benefit being that it will allow our trees to grow up to their full potential, once this has happened we’ll then be able to recycle the windbreak for another part of the property to allow other trees to grow faster. The idea of the windbreaks is not to completely stop the wind, just slow it down to a level that we can live with, the product we are using will slow the speed down by 50%.

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In terms of vineyard team, they as Richard mentioned in the last blog have been clearing scrub- and repairing the odd water main. It’s a quiet time of the year for the vineyard before we start pruning. It’s the time of year when everyone takes a well-earned break and we can catch up on all the essential maintenance and odd jobs that need doing.

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Cultivating hair rather than vines, Movember

While the Great Rathfinny Bake-Off is drawing to a close, Movember is just getting underway with the boys at Rathfinny.

Movember (the month formerly known as November) is a moustache growing charity event held during November each year that raises funds and awareness for prostate and testicular cancer, and mental health.

At the start of Movember guys register with a clean shaven face. The Movember participants, known as Mo Bros, have the remainder of the month to grow and groom their Mo, raising money along the way to benefit men’s health.

The Team at Rathfinny have (mostly) taken up the challenge and have begun cultivating their faces for charity- mainly because they are unable to do anything else from all the cake they’ve been eating. We’ve even managed to get Jonathan to shave his beard, which he has had for 11 years.

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Before……                        and after.

The whole idea behind Movember is that we get people talking about men’s health by the growing of moustaches and the community to support them by creating an innovative, fun and engaging campaign that results in:

•   Funds for men’s health programme investment

•   Conversations about men’s health that lead to:

–  Greater awareness and understanding of the health risks men face

–  Men taking action to remain well

–  When men are sick they know what to do and take action

So get behind the guys and support the Rathfinny Mo’s, and help us change the face of men’s health. All of those who have organised themselves to register are on the Rathfinny Team page ( http://moteam.co/rathfinny-mo-s) and there are individual links from there. So whether you want to donate a little or a lot, it all helps. And if you’d just prefer to have a laugh at the Mo’s, the pictures will be updated regularly.IMG_6734-2

At the end of the first week, some of the mo’s.

Briefly, in news from the vineyard, the guys have finally finished putting all the posts in for this year, and they’ve even self-proclaimed a world record posts per day of 768. The vines are in the stages of shutting down ready for winter, most of the leaves have been turned autumnal by the St Jude’s day storm, but otherwise everything weathered the storm well.IMG_6298

The last few posts going in.

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard manager

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Further lessons….

As Mark’s latest blog mentioned, things are taking longer to develop than we first anticipated and some realities of farming are starting to hit home.

However, I thought that rather than dwell on the frustrations and obstacles we are facing, I thought I’d focus on the positives of our site and choices we have made.

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Yes, we are exposed, and a windy site. This is great for disease control! It means that to control botrytis, powdery and downy mildew and other nasty diseases that plague vineyards in the UK and worldwide we rarely have to spray fungicides. Due to plenty of air movement within the vineyard we have the luxury of less disease risk than most sites.

We have very little topsoil, in some places as little as 20cm before we hit the chalk. This is great for vines; worldwide vineyards are planted on some of the poorest soils, which cause a lack of vigour, which in turn is great for fine wine. All of the finest wines are grown on soil that is considered less than ideal for other crops. Lack of vigour in the vines causes them to gentle stress, helping them to produce superior fruit.

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We have used Fercal rootstock, this has the highest tolerance to chalk soils of all the types of rootstock available. It is slow to get established but has a deep rooting system, which means it will get its “feet” down into the chalk. It also ripens quicker than other options, which enables us to produce better quality wines with less pressure at harvest time.

We have great biodiversity, something Richard is far more capable of explaining than I am. What it does mean is that we plenty of natural predatory insects that are able to control the populations of unwanted species without the need to intervene chemically. Once again reducing our need to resort to spraying to control these pests. The main thing is we don’t have beasties like the one below which can plague some vineyards overseas.

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The photo is from Gayle Shulte in the US who discovered this in their vineyard, it is the caterpillar of the Pandorus sphinx moth and I can only imagine what a caterpillar this size could eat in a day!

Cameron Roucher – Vineyard Manager

 

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It doesn’t rain it pours…

It doesn’t rain it pours…

With sunshine that is, what a pleasant and welcome change to finally see the sun for more than a couple of hours, and plenty of warmth to go with it.

Some of the more sheltered areas have visibly taken off, some vines have put on an inch or so of growth in the last week alone.

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We are still marking out and putting posts in, although held up by a few breakdowns they are going in great. All the young blocks are now cultivated to keep the weeds down while last year’s vines are trying to head towards flowering, while others that don’t have flowers are putting on reasonable shoot growth.IMG_0492

We also have made a start on picking up flints from the area around this year’s planting. Last year the guys managed to pick up 60 tonnes of flint which will go into the building of the flint barn. We should get at least that this year, even if we don’t get anywhere near that tonnage of fruit! It’s a long slow and dusty process at this time of year but at least it beats doing it when the ground is frozen.

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